As the White House tries to spin the rushed debt limit deal into a positive, one thing is clear: The stability it promises is only temporary.
Congress will be voting on a deal where discretionary programs will undergo a 10-year spending freeze—meaning that as inflation increases, programs to help poor folks and people of color will not be able to keep up. And a congressional committee will have to identify $1.5 trillion in domestic and defense spending cuts by the end of the year.
All of this so that the months-long saga of raising the debt limit won’t have to be repeated…until 2013.
One critical program with an uncertain future is the Pell Grant. The program makes college a possibility for many low-income students, even though the maximum award only covers one-third of tuition and the average recipient still graduates with about $20,000 in debt. More than 30 percent of Pell Grant recipients are students of color.
Yet, of the few tenable debt-deal ideas floated over the last week, Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s was shot down by Tea Partiers because it included necessary supplemental funding to the program. House Republicans like Maryland Republican Andy Harris rebelled because, as he said, “I really don’t understand why we’re increasing spending in a bill supposed to be cutting spending.”
Harris really doesn’t understand how Pell Grants work. No matter how much (or little) money is set aside for the program, every student who qualifies for a grant gets one. This means that every few years, Congress must authorize an emergency spending bill to pay the debt the program has incurred, and that’s what Boehner was trying to do—until it became clear that he wouldn’t get votes.
While President Obama has fought to preserve Pell Grants at their current level of $5,500, the deal he struck last night will mean that they’re going to come under fire in the next few months—and now that the Tea Party Republicans have set their sights on the program, its future is even more tenuous.
Montana Republican Denny Rehberg, a member of Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus, called Pell Grants the “welfare of the 21st century” in April, adding, “You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, Section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college.”
“That’s garbage,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “What Pell does is gives kids the opportunity to work hard.”
Wilkins says that while Pell is safe for now, there will be two key fights this year that will likely see some Tea Party meddling. First, this fall, Congress must authorize funds to fill the hole that Boehner was attempting to address in his plan. Second, the congressional committee whose job it is to determine the $1.5 trillion in cuts by Dec. 23 will have to decide whether to maintain funding levels for the Pell program.
“Both of those places hold dangers and pitfalls,” Wilkins says. “It’s critical that advocates who work on programs that benefit low-income youth—from Head Start to health care to Pell Grants—come together,” she adds. “This is the opportunity to put some balance in this deficit reduction program.”